The Friends of the “Free Market” Are Its Worst Enemies

In the introduction to Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman complained of the perversion of the word “liberalism,” which early in the 20th century underwent a shift in meaning from a philosophy favoring free markets and individual liberty to a philsophy favoring government intervention to guarantee individual security. He quoted Joseph Schumpeter’s statement that the enemies of the system of free enterprise had appropriated its label.

This is true in a sense which Friedman perhaps did not intend. Most people who call themselves “liberal” these days are, indeed, hardly friends of free enterprise. But if Friedman meant to imply that liberal Democrats are uniquely hostile to free markets, among political movements in the American mainstream, he was mistaken.

In fact, any time you hear a politician on C-SPAN or a wonk on one of the talking head shows praise “our free enterprise system” or “our free market system,” you can be morally certain the words are being spoken by an enemy of free enterprise and free markets.

The people who talk most about “free enterprise” and “free markets” in American political discourse, far from actually favoring those things, have appropriated the label “free enterprise” for their system of corporate welfare, corporate protectionism, and crony capitalism.

Quite frankly, I’m thoroughly sick of seeing right-wing Republicans referred to as “free market fundamentalists” by people like Thomas Frank. I’m sick of seeing “free market” treated, on the Left, as synonymous with a modernized version of Robber Baron capitalism. But it’s hard to blame them for this, considering that about the only people you see praising “the free market” in the mainstream media are, well, Robber Barons.

It’s a shame they’ve managed to get away with it. I have a more respect for those who, no matter how morally odious, at least are honest enough to admit where the interests of the corporate piggies at the trough really lie when it comes to free markets.

The private sentiments of the so-called friends of “free enterprise” — people like Dick Cheney, Tom Delay, and Dick Armey — are probably more honestly represented by former Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas: “The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy.” “The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”

Tom Friedman, the foremost defender of corporate globalization, knows exactly what the system really requires:

“For globalism to work, American can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.  The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

But then, I like the cheerfully sociopathic Blago unknowingly recorded on the phone (“effing golden”) a lot better than the guy on the talking head shows who lifts his eyes heavenward and compares himself to Gandhi and Mother Theresa. At least with people like Andreas and Friedman, you know what you’re dealing with. No hokum about “free enterprise.” Just flaming death from the skies for anybody who fails to ratify the Uruguay Round TRIPS accord or stops using the dollar as a reserve currency.

If you want a living illustration of the moral cancer at the heart of what passes for “free market” advocacy, just look at Dick Cheney saying “the government never made anyone rich” — while Halliburton/KBR gobbles down slop by the bucketfull.

It’s no wonder “free enterprise” and “free markets” have fallen into such ill repute among broad sections of the American public. You can thank their most vocal defenders. If “free markets” meant what the folks at FreedomWorks and AEI meant by them, I’d hate them too.

Fortunately, though, they don’t. Free markets — genuine free markets, without subsidies or protections for big business — are the enemies of corporate power. But you’ll never see anyone saying that on CNBC or the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

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